Movie earns its Milk Bones

In Eight Below, the dogs and the frozen setting are the stars. But the people don't fare so badly either.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published February 16, 2006

After the insufferably dumb Snow Dogs, moviegoers can be excused for thinking Eight Below isn't worth their time. Both are Disney productions starring lovable canines in arctic conditions, but all comparisons, especially in regard to quality, end there.

Eight Below is as serious as Snow Dogs tried to be funny. Inspired by a true story and based on a 1983 Japanese film, director Frank Marshall's movie is an outdoors adventure in the tradition of Jack London's novels in which man and beast struggle for survival against the elements. It is a movie unafraid to "kill" an animal or two in order to prove how dangerous the situation is.

Marshall's drama is sincere, making any cliches and conveniences easier to overlook. Eight Below isn't a great movie, but it has the intangible qualities of good entertainment, pulling us into the story deeper than expected for a movie starring pretty boy Paul Walker.

Walker takes a step toward screen maturity playing Jerry Shepherd, an Antarctica explorer and dogsled guide. He lovingly commands a team of eight huskies and malamutes, each with enough physical and personality traits to tell apart. Life in sub-zero temperatures is about to get worse; a devastating storm approaches, forcing Jerry, his oddball assistant Cooper (Jason Biggs) and the rest to evacuate their station. Unfortunately, the dogs must be left behind to fend for themselves.

Eight Below spends as much time detailing how the dogs survive for months as it does with Jerry's determination to return and rescue them. Starvation is a major problem that probably wouldn't be solved as tamely as the movie suggests; it seems plausible that the dogs would feed on whatever meat was available, even each other. A scary encounter with a hungry leopard seal couldn't be their only brush with predators. Laws of nature are sanitized to Disney standards, yet still harsh for PG circumstances.

Focusing on the dogs also prevents Walker and his human co-stars from making many wrong moves. A halting romance between Jerry and a geologist (Wendy Crewson) doesn't intrude much, and a scientist (Bruce Greenwood) whose expedition led to the dogs' abandonment is primed for villainy that never materializes. Most important, Walker is stripped of the easy grins and opportunities to display his six-pack abs that passed for performances before. He must emote, challenged enough by the material to suggest more talent than previously believed.

The true star of Eight Below is its frozen setting, with Canada, Norway and Greenland subbing for Antarctica. Don Burgess' camera captures the deceptive beauty of tundras and snow-covered chasms that can turn deadly with one bad step. Not as authentic as March of the Penguins, of course, but effectively threatening.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.